The burglar was standing in the middle of the living room in the middle of the night when Zabiuflah Alam returned to his Fairfax County home.
The burglar fled, but not before Alam got a good enough look to help police build their case against Christopher Andaryl Wills.
Ten days after Alam testified against Wills at a preliminary hearing, Alam responded to a flier left at his door that told of landscaping jobs. He arranged an interview at Union Station. He was never seen again.
Yesterday, a federal grand jury in Alexandria offered an answer to the more than year-long mystery when it indicted Wills on charges of kidnapping and killing Alam, 22, of Groveton.
At the time of Alam's disappearance in June 1998, Wills, who has lived in various locales, was on the streets after being freed on a technicality by a Baltimore judge in a robbery and carjacking case brought against him there.
"This should not have happened. Wills shouldn't even have been out of jail," said Alam's cousin Gay-LeClerc Qader. "It's a screw-up in the system."
Deputy Baltimore State's Attorney Haven Kodeck said that office would not comment on the events.
The body of Alam, a waiter, has not been found. FBI investigators linked Wills to Alam through a cellular phone number listed on the job flier and through telephone recordings that captured Wills saying, "I already got the fliers out" and "I'm getting ready to hurt him," according to the five-page indictment.
In the Baltimore case, Wills, now 33, was freed after the state's attorney's office and judges had kept him in jail without a trial for 1 1/2 years, a violation of his right to a speedy trial.
Wills, who has lived in the District, Baltimore and Prince George's County, and an accomplice, Kevin Cox, held up a grocery store and carjacked two vehicles on April 20, 1996, according to a description of the crimes filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Under state law, Wills was entitled to a trial within 180 days, and he complained during at least four hearings that his rights had been violated. A series of judges sent him back to jail, but finally, in November 1997, more than a year after the 180-day deadline, Circuit Judge John N. Prevas set Wills free.
In January of this year, after the Baltimore Sun made the case front-page news, federal authorities charged Wills with interfering with interstate commerce by robbery for the Baltimore incident. He pleaded guilty and is serving a 14-year term, court records show.
But Wills had been out on the street for most of 1998. And in that time, the Alexandria federal grand jury contends, Alam encountered Wills.
According to the federal indictment, Alam and Wills crossed paths in Alam's apartment in the middle of the night on April 4, 1998. Alam, a 1995 graduate of Lake Braddock High School, called police, who apprehended Wills and showed Alam his picture.
"Family members told him not to testify, for his safety," Qader said. But Alam, an immigrant from Pakistan, "said, 'I'm an American and it's the right thing to do.' "
At a June 15, 1998, hearing in Fairfax County General District Court, Qader said, Wills glared at Alam and made him feel so uncomfortable that he asked police whether he needed protection. They reassured him, even though Wills was out on bond, she said.
Fairfax police would not comment on the case.
Two days later, a flier was left at Alam's apartment building, according to the indictment. It advertised a job paying $11 an hour with "medical, vacation, periodic pay raise" and listed a number that matched a cellular phone. The number, the indictment states, had recently been reactivated by Wills using the alias "Ed Short" and a fictitious address in Temple Hills.
On June 19, Wills had a phone conversation with his brother Michael Wills, who was in prison in Petersburg, Va., so the call was recorded. When Alam disappeared, investigators asked the prison to save the tapes they had made of Michael Wills's conversations.
During the conversation, Christopher Wills said, "I already got the fliers out and everything, so I'm just waiting, you know, for them to get it and call," according to the indictment.
Alam eventually called the cell phone. On June 24, Wills was recorded telling his brother, "Once I got this [expletive] cleared up, what I gotta do tomorrow, I'm in the clear. . . . I'm getting ready to hurt him," the indictment said.
Alam, who was also studying business at Northern Virginia Community College, borrowed nice clothes from a friend and set out for Union Station on June 25 in his 1985 red BMW, friends said.
The next day, Wills called his brother again, the indictment said, and when the brother asked, "You handled your business?" Wills replied, "Yeah. . . . Taken care of."
Alam's car was found July 28, 1998, in Temple Hills.
"The most frustrating thing is not having a body and not knowing what happened," Qader said. Some relatives in denial "want to believe he's in the witness protection program."
Had Wills been convicted of the apartment burglary, he probably was looking at about six years in prison under Virginia's sentencing guidelines because he had a prior Prince George's County conviction for armed robbery, said Richard P. Kern, director of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. If convicted of the kidnapping and killing, Wills could get the death penalty.
Maryland state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore) said the Wills case led to the creation in Baltimore of a coordinating group of judges, prosecutors, police and public defenders so defendants won't "fall through the cracks. . . . Things are improving here, but that doesn't help the young man in Northern Virginia."
Staff writer Angela Paik contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Zabiuflah Alam vanished in 1998 after testifying about a burglary.